Durango resident Gail Harris is known for going above and beyond – and breaking barriers along the way.
She barreled past racist or sexist practices in her childhood and three-decade military career. In 2001, she retired as the highest-ranking African American female in the U.S. Navy. For Harris, 71, retirement just created time to host a local radio show, publish a memoir, become an event speaker and teach an intelligence analysis and policy course.
In 2019, she decided to study composition at The Julliard School so she could write music for her own Broadway-style musical. When police reform protests swept the nation in 2020, she started consulting with the Durango Police Department on solutions.
“She’s somebody I want my daughter to meet,” said Brice Current, the department’s deputy chief, who met Harris at a city speaking event in 2019. “I don’t want her (his daughter) to quit on anything. That’s exactly why I want her to meet Gail because I know she’s going to provide her with that strength that she needs.”
Harris joined the Navy while earning a graduate degree in national security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. (Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was her classmate.)
Her 28-year career as a Naval intelligence officer was marked by leadership roles and a string of firsts.
Harris, who retired as a highly decorated Navy captain, was the first African American female to be designated as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy, the first Navy female liaison to the Egyptian military, and the first female and African American instructor at the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.
Throughout her career, she met resistance, she said. Her solution? Performing extremely well and depending on her sharp, and at times, off-color sense of humor.
In the 1970s, a Navy woman couldn’t be deployed to a combat ship, a law that wouldn’t be overturned until the 1990s. While in Naval intelligence training in 1973, the class adviser, a Navy lieutenant, asked the other (male) students what they wanted for their first assignment, but ignored Harris.
“I finally raised my hand and said, ‘What about me?’” Harris said. “He said, ‘I don’t believe you belong in the Navy, let alone an aviation squadron.’”
“I said, ‘You can say whatever you want, but everybody knows Black people are sexually superior,’” Harris recalled.
That year, she became the first female intelligence officer in a Navy aviation squadron.
Her superiors said one reason they wanted her to be the “test case” for women on a combat assignment was that she got along with men, in part because of her sense of humor, she said, adding that the women’s rights movement was in full swing at the time.
“Having to be better, just to be considered ‘as good as,’ I would not have been a successful intelligence officer without that,” Harris said.
When asked if those experiences seemed like sexism or racism, she said: “I did it, so you don’t have to. I’m honored that my ceiling became the next generation’s floor. ... All of us are standing on the shoulders of people who came before us.
“I would never council anyone going into an environment ... to handle the situation as I did,” she said. “They don’t have to.”
‘It’s not history’Harris, who is from New Jersey, grew up visiting the segregated South. She remembered the Black and white water fountains and not being able to stay in certain hotels or eat in certain restaurants.
“As any African American baby boomer ... it’s not history to me,” Harris said.
Last summer, the nation’s racial tensions burst back into the forefront after the deaths of several Black Americans at the hands of police. Protests swept the nation.
That’s when Harris got more involved with the Durango Police Department.
“I was in full uniform, which is a pretty nerve-wracking experience, right? It’s a place where I could probably use a friend,” Current said. “She stood with me at the rally.”
Harris said the situation reminded her of joining the military during the anti-Vietnam War movement.
“She doesn’t really care what other people think,” Current said. “Right then and there, I knew it ... she’s about solutions.”
Everyone has their own path, Harris said, but she prefers to show action rather than demonstrate. She also does not hold back from saying there are some problems with the military or police.
“To say there are never any misbehaving or racist policemen is not a correct statement,” Harris said. “You’re entitled to your views, but if you treat one group of people differently in a situation than you would someone else, then there’s a problem.”
Current invited Harris to join the Durango Police Department’s diversity, equity and inclusion group, an informal group offering the department feedback about hiring, promotion and recruitment practices. The group has already made huge changes to the way the department does things, he said.
“(Gail) is a leader. With her history and what she’s done; she immediately zoned in on mental health,” Current said. “If the officers are mentally healthy then (the community) will trust more that we’ll make good decisions.”
‘Find a philosophy’In her lowest moments, what she calls “the dark night of the soul,” Harris turns to religion and music.
“When life knocks you to your knees ... you need to have some inner support to help you get back up,” Harris said.
While her father taught her how to succeed in the workplace, her mother taught her about the spirit.
Her mother made her and her siblings go to Sunday school until they were 21. She encouraged Harris and her brother to sing, although Harris says she’s the only one in her family who doesn’t have a good singing voice.
“There’s something about music that makes my soul soar,” Harris said. “When I was going through some of my most difficult times in life, I would make a playlist to lift myself up.”
As a DJ at KDUR, an indie-punk radio station at Fort Lewis College, Harris serenaded the city with soul and R&B for more than 10 years.
“Gail is wonderful on the air,” said Bryant Liggett, KDUR station manager. She might talk about an artist – or desserts, wine nights and the National Football League. “It just made people smile.”
These days, Alicia Keys, H.E.R., Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross are on that playlist. Thinking of her challenges and successes, Harris had simple advice to offer others:
“Find a philosophy of life that works for you,” Harris said. “It’s very important that it works for you.”